A Stellar Swim

“It’s nice to have an end to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters, in the end”.

This has been one of my favorite quotes, ever since it appeared in a deck of inspirational phrases my parents got me as a gift when I was about eleven years old.

A couple nights ago, I switched from morning swims to night swims, with the goal of getting comfortable swimming at night. The end I am training for? A long swim, partially at night, across Lake Tahoe, which spans the border between California and Nevada. Though it’s just a point on the path toward something I’m super psyched to do, last night was so spectacular, it’ll stick out in my memory forever. It has the potential to be one of those things I look back on when I’m 97 and say, “I am so glad I was there, then”.

The first night practice left me extremely excited, happy and wanting more. We had an issue with the lights on Dan’s kayak (why we practice) and had to end early, just as things were getting really good with the stars. So, we arrived back at Elk Lake last night, knowing we were in for a treat.

Dan the first night, getting the kayak ready with lights.

Elk Lake is a favorite for Central Oregon swimmers. Nestled at 4900 feet among the mountain peaks of South Sister, Broken Top and Mt. Bachelor, both the air and water are beautiful, cool and clear. Especially at night. I did my first night swim here two years ago.

I don’t have any pictures after sunset, so I’ll do my best with the descriptions.

I got in the water and started swimming, a glow stick attached to the back of my suit and another to the front. I like doing backstroke, so I need one on each side. Otherwise, I’m told I just vanish when I switch to backstroke, I also had a red “dog light” attached to my goggles that I can turn off and on by rotating.

I practiced activating the glow sticks while they were already attached to me, while treading water and was pleased I was able to do it without removing them from my suit.

So I swam on, literally into the sunset, watching pink glows to the east and a warmer, yellow glow to the west, occasionally picking my head up to glimpse South Sister, hallowed in colors to the north. I made a point of practicing relaxing for the first hour. Relaxing my body and also my mind. It felt really nice.

I found if I over-rotated my head toward to sky on the breath, I could see the first few stars popping out, and then even the first constellations. And then, before I knew it, it was dark. There was no moon to reflect the hidden sun and stars were emerging rapidly, speckling the sky. During times when Dan had to adjust something in the kayak, I would swim ahead, alone, out into the unknown, but feeling somehow comfortable in spite of the darkness.

I saved my hot chocolate drink for the last hour of the three hour swim and by then the air was a cool 50 degrees, causing the 67 degree water to feel quite warm in contrast. I took off my goggles and floated while sipping the chocolate. It was bliss. The Milky Way was as thick as my arm and spectacular in its reach across the sky. Looking south, Jupiter was so bright, it cast a reflection on the water.

I looked directly up and was awe-struck by the clarity of the air and intensity of the gazillions of stars shining back at me. A meteor streaked across the sky and I made a wish. And as if all that wasn’t enough, I turned to face northwest to take in the comet, NEOWISE, which has captured the obsessions of star gazers everywhere. The comet hung near the horizon, as if paused, mid-air, doing a swan dive into the lake, the tail streaming out behind it.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but I was seeing it. There is something really special about being immersed in the water below and surrounded by the stars and night sky above, the contrast between the horizon and water nearly gone. It’s like swimming suspended in space, the context completely shifted, with far fewer spatial reference points. I did a lot of backstroke that last hour, watching the stars through my clear goggles as I swam. I counted four meteors, some traveling far across the sky, others just a quick blip before burning up and gone forever in the earth’s atmosphere.

Everything is fleeting and goals are just a place we’re headed to. But the things we see along the way–wow!

Swimming Billy Chinook

Last Thursday, July 9, in Lake Billy Chinook, I swam my longest current neutral swim and longest swim by duration. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful. It was hard. I got cold, and I’m proud for pushing through. Over 26 miles by gps track, and around 25.4 miles by shortest route plan distance, I swam for 13 hours and 14 minutes. It’s also my first official “documented swim” attempt (explained below) and interestingly, this overwhelms me with pride, even more so than the distance. It will take some time for the swim to be officially reviewed, as the process is much more thorough than simply looking at my GPS track. Documenting the swim is meaningful to me on many levels, which I hope to express in this post. But first, I’ve got to explain what a documented swim is and why I was doing it.

The Marathon Swimmers Federation

When I started training for my first Portland Bridge Swim in 2013, I stumbled upon the Marathon Swimmers Forum, a project of the Marathon Swimmers Federation (MSF). The forum was filled with useful information contributed by experienced marathon swimmers regarding training plans, nutrition and other helpful tidbits. I continued to rely on this resource when I prepared for the swim around key west (that got canceled). While training for END-WET, I consumed forum posts like they were popcorn–reading voraciously almost nightly, catching up on posts and threads from years prior. I even signed up for the forum and made a few timid posts myself, but mostly I was a lurker. I was in awe of the other swimmers participating in the discussion. They seemed friendly and knowledgeable, but also gritty as hell–everything I’ve always wanted to be. These are people who run toward the cold, the discomfort and the long, dark miles at night rather than away from them. They are people who aren’t concerned with buying $1,000 technical racing suits, but who will swim in age old speedos or athletic style bikinis in 50 degree water. It’s an ethic of low tech, traditionalist style athleticism that somehow seems to be fading underneath the commercialism of sponsorships and technical advances in equipment that dominate many sports. I was hooked.

As I read the forum, I discovered several other projects provided by MSF–the long swims database and something called a “documented swim”.

Long Swims Database

Marathon swimming is an interesting sport because there is no central governing body. An entity called FINA governs some races, often in the 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) distance, including the Olympics, but allows additional assistive equipment, such as technical racing suits and wetsuits. I think that’s fine and would wear one too if I were in the Olympics, but that’s a very different type of challenge and training than preparing your body to swim over twenty miles in cold water without the assistance of a hydrophobic or floating neoprene suit.

Many channel swims (e.g., English Channel, Catalina Channel, Strait of Juan de Fuca) are governed by local groups that set rules for what constitutes “standard” or acceptable equipment, what the ratified route will be and what, if any, qualifications must be met before making an attempt. These groups train observers to come along on your swim to ensure that you completed the swim according to the rules and provide very detailed, extensive documentation of your swim. In many cases, these groups have also done considerable work communicating with local coast guard and/or government agencies to ensure that swimming in the area can be done at least somewhat safely in the context of other activities (e.g., shipping by large boats and barges). It’s important to do swims through these groups for many reasons, not the least of which is that just jumping in the water wherever and swimming across shipping lanes can potentially jeopardize us being allowed by local governments to continue to do what we do.

Example page from the observer log provided to me by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation

Each of these local groups are separate and unaffiliated with one another. They keep their own records and for a long time, there was no centralized location containing information about marathon swims throughout the world. Evan Morrison, an experienced marathon swimmer with a love for data analysis and record keeping created the Long Swims Database and filled that gap, essentially forming a centralized repository for results in the specific niche of marathon swimming. So nowadays, if you complete a solo marathon swim managed by one of these local groups with trained observers or if you complete a marathon swim that is part of a big group event, your time and a few other pieces of information can go into this cool database. According to the database website, longswims.com, there are currently over 59,000 marathon swims listed, done by over 22,600 swimmers in 133 countries.

Documented Swims

So what if you want to do a long, solo swim where no one has done one before, where there is no local organization who has already paved the way for you? If you do the swim, how can the other swimmers out there know that you really did it and did it with standard equipment (textile swimsuit, cap, goggles, ear plugs) and did it without hanging on the boat, getting on the boat for a break, or having other people touch you to put on sunscreen or non standard equipment? MSF created a process and set of guidelines for having your own observers come with you to take extensive notes, photos and videos to be collected and submitted to them for review, and hopefully ratification. The organization is currently conducting reviews of swims under a core group of eight highly respected and experienced marathon swimmers.

Once approved, the swim can be included in the Long Swims Database and the detailed information from the swim is also available for others to review on the website, which is useful for reasons of transparency as well as planning or learning from your experience. It’s worth noting that MSF has always been clear that documented swims are not an option that can take the place of doing a swim through one of the established, local associations mentioned earlier. It’s just for situations where there is no local association established to document your swim, but you’d like to document it anyhow.

For an incredible example of a documented swim, go here and learn about Sarah Thomas’ epic, 104 mile swim, the longest continuous, current neutral swim in recorded history.

Doing this swim with observers and a “repeatable route” (explained below) with the plan to submit it to MSF for ratification, rather than as a private project was important to me, because of the connection to this particular group of people who I have long admired. You can do stuff on your own, and Dan (my boyfriend-kayaker) and I often do. But there is something intangibly important about linking it in with what other people are doing. It’s not really general recognition I’m after. It’s recognition from people who have done other really hard things, who will encourage you to give more and try harder. People who won’t look askance at you and say that you are “crazy”.

Lake Billy Chinook

The idea for a long swim around Billy Chinook occurred to me last spring. I was researching possible long swims and realized I could do one in my own backyard. Situated less than ten miles north of my house, Lake Billy Chinook was named for a Native American guide of the Wasco tribe who assisted explorers in 1843-1844 expeditions. The lake covers approximately 4,000 acres, most of which is part of The Cove Palisades State Park, with the southwestern shores of the Metolius arm managed by the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The northern shores of the Metolius River are part of The Warm Springs Indian Reservation, which spans 1,000 miles to the north.

The lake is the confluence of the Metolius, Crooked and Deschutes rivers and was formed with the construction of The Round Butte Dam in 1965. These rivers carved deep canyons out of the rock, forming dramatic vertical cliffs showcasing layers of geographic history. A trip by kayak (or swim) through these waters is breath taking and humbling, no matter the distance.

After the confluence of the Crooked and Deschutes, heading north, toward the dam. Photo credits for the rest of this picture and the rest of this post go to Lauren Smith.

A Little Hydrology

The Metolius River flows out of an underground spring near Camp Sherman, twenty-nine miles to the west of the dam. At approximately 48 degrees, the water is cold and crystal clear. On a sunny day it sparkles alongside rich-red ponderosa pines and riverbanks lush with green plant life. A number of tributary streams flow into it, helping it to grow bigger and broader until it ultimately flows through the dam and becomes part of The Deschutes River.

The Deschutes River flows from the Cascade Mountain range and also comes from a spring fed creek near Little Lava Lake, about 100 miles from Lake Billy Chinook. It is fed by additional spring fed creeks along with snow melt.

Finally, The Crooked River flows from the much drier area east of Lake Billy Chinook. It is fed by springs and creeks along the way, including The South Fork Crooked River, which originates north of Glass Buttes, some 80 or so miles east of the city of Bend.

When these three rivers mix together in the lake, the water from the Metolius, being the clearest and most dense, sinks to the bottom, with the less dense water of the Crooked floating to the top, and water from the Deschutes sinking only to the middle. So for swimming, regardless of which arm of the lake you’re in, you’re mostly swimming in Crooked River water and the temperature of the surface water only varies several degrees, despite the river temperatures differing by much more before reaching the lake. On the day of my swim, temperatures ranged from 65-69F.

The Swim Route

For many of my training swims, I get in a lake and swim around until it’s time to get out. Sometimes I go straight across and back, swimming laps, sometimes I follow the perimeter of the lake or zigzag back and forth. If Dan is with me and he’s bored, he will try to draw something or write his name with the GPS track to see if it is visible on the map after the swim. All these are great if it’s a swim only for you and you’re not trying to link it up with anything anyone else is doing or provide any kind of record for what you did. For instance, if you say you swam the perimeter of the lake, what does that actually mean? Could someone else do a shorter perimeter, further from the shore, and claim to have done the same thing? If you are trying to make a record of what you did for purposes of connecting (or comparing) with what other people have done, then you will have to be more precise, which brings us to the notion of repeatable routes. Such a route must have some geographical landmarks that you must go past or around, like a bridge or an island or campground. It can’t be something that moves or is temporary, like a buoy. The route should take the shortest distances between these landmarks, rather than meandering around toward them. Here is some from Evan Morrison’s personal page to help you create a repeatable route.

For my route, I wanted to swim in each of the three arms of the lake, so I determined I would go past the bridges in the Deschutes and Crooked arms, then around Chinook Island in the Metolius. Here is the planned route as drawn in my GPS tracking app.

I had some help from Evan, who took a look at the first drawing and said it was a cool route, but helped me draw the lines slightly differently to get the shortest distance between the landmarks.

The Crew

This project became even more meaningful to me once I found two people who were not only willing, but excited about helping me document the swim. Both experienced outdoors-women and adventurers, Mary Louise Warhus and Lauren Smith agreed not only to accompany Dan and I on the 13 plus hour trip, but also to learning how marathon swimming works, what the rules are, and why they’re important. They learned how to take stroke rates, use the anemometer and apply the Beaufort scale to open water. The three of us are rock climbers and are used to planning extensively for expeditions, using safety protocols, backing things up with redundancy and contingency planning. I’m used to trusting them with my life as belay partners and we are good at communicating very clearly with one another while under stress, or as I like to say, “freaking out”. Furthermore, we had endless text strings and email threads during which they took the time to read forum articles and conversations dating back to the early days of documented swims and asked well thought out questions before the day of the swim approached. Coming from rock climbing, another adventure sport where people are often setting records or logging first ascents far from the eyes of an audience, they understand the importance of integrity when it comes to following rules and reporting honestly what occurred. Even though they aren’t swimmers, it became clear early on in the planning stages that they would be excellent crew members and I was absolutely correct on that. Having them with me meant the world to me. They have the same adventurous take on things as I do and my mind was blown that they wanted to come along and support me in this way.

Mary Louise (left) and Lauren (right)

And then of course, there’s Dan, who is there with me every step of every day, especially since shut down when we are literally at home together every day. I’m incredibly lucky he finds these adventures meaningful also. He says he likes to kayak because it gets him out of the house and outside and there isn’t pressure of conversation. He is an introvert and notes that it’s good for him to have time to himself to think through things out on the water. Still, he has other hobbies he likes to do and I’m very grateful that he continues to choose to be there with me.

Social Distancing

Because of COVID-19, we wanted to limit the number of people on board the pontoon. I asked Dan if he thought he might want to kayak the whole distance. Yes, I realize this is insane. I told him he could get out and take a break periodically (which he did not do). He had kayaked the whole way across Catalina with me (over 11 hours), so this was his longest kayak yet as well. With Dan and I in and on the water, it left Mary Louise and Lauren with plenty of elbow room aboard the 24 foot pontoon boat, named “Sweetwater”.

The Crooked Arm

So at 05:48.22 (am) according to the beautifully completed observer log, we set off. I swam through the marina and out into the Crooked River Arm, heading south to the bridge. The water felt absolutely wonderful and the relief of actually beginning after so much planning washed over me with each stroke. I concentrated on going easy, taking smooth, slow strokes, one after the next. I looked over at Dan in the kayak, navigating using the gps app map I created for him and to the other side at the pontoon boat, where Lauren and Mary Louise looked happy and confident as they cruised down the lake. All was well.

We reached the bridge over The Crooked River not much longer than an hour later, took a photo of me on the far side of the bridge, and continued back north.

A beautiful scene as we made our way back north:

And I couldn’t resist some backstroke to get a different view:

The Deschutes Arm

We reached the spot we call “The Wedge”, the confluence of The Crooked and Deschutes rivers, in what felt like a lot sooner than I expected. On maps and descriptions of the area, The Wedge is actually referred to as “The Island” or “The Island Peninsula” even though it is not an island at all. It’s an interesting place, with ancient petroglyphs, that is no longer open to the public. It’s a spectacular spot to see and I look forward to going there every swim.

The water was cooler there. It always is and I was mentally prepared and adjusted quickly. I still focused on not allowing myself to “try hard” or speed up my stroke rate. Looking back on my observer log (which includes stroke rate), I see I succeeded. I remember feeling great at this point and had a song called, “Riding with the Ghost” in my head. It occurred to me that with all of the desitin I had spread over my body for sun protection that I probably looked like a ghost. I found this thought to be hilarious at the time as I turned up the volume of the song in my head and swam along to it. Weird, I know.

About halfway to the next bridge the water warmed up considerably and felt even more awesome. I slowed down to a very comfortable cruise and was in a really good mood. On every feed I gave a thumbs up to share my positivity before moving on. I reached the Deschutes bridge, swam backstroke underneath, requested some Miso soup for the next feed and started swimming back toward “The Wedge”. As I entered the cooler, deeper water heading back north, I decided to go harder for awhile since I thought that would help me feel warmer. I now think this was a mistake. Of course I am warmer when my heart rate is higher, but having a high heart rate causes vasodilation–basically your blood vessels open up to better supply oxygen to your muscles. This helps you swim a little faster, but it’s the opposite of vasoconstriction–the narrowing of blood vessels to keep warmth in. Vasoconstriction is one of the adaptations that occurs when you do a lot of cold water swimming. It helps you stay warm by moving blood away from your skin and closer to your core. The blood can stay warmer longer when it’s not so close to the surface of your skin, which has been chilled by the water. Sure, I’m warmer when my heart rate is up, but it’s like piling firewood on your stove then opening the door and letting all the heat out of your house. You might stay warm for a bit, but you run out of heat a lot faster… and then you get cold.

The Metolius Arm

I continued to “try hard” as we completed the Deschutes arm and passed “The Wedge” for the second time. The water going north toward the Metolius is very deep and had very warm and very cold pockets as speed boats and jet skis whizzed passed, stirring the water with their wake. It’s also one of my favorite spots for scenery and looks like this:

I remember requesting some ibuprofen at this point, but feeling like whenever we stopped for a feed, I was in a cold pocket and didn’t want to linger while fumbling with the pill bottle. Other swimmers, like Sarah Thomas, take their ibuprofen in liquid form, dissolved in their drinks. I don’t really know why I haven’t tried this before, but I will before my next big swim.

By the time we reached the Metolius Arm, at around the seven hour mark, I was feeling chilly. I wish I had backed off then, but instead I kept pushing the pace and possibly pushing heat out the door with it. I took the ibuprofen and switched to a mix of chocolate and coffee, a choice I was vaguely aware may further the issue of vasodilation. I remember thinking I didn’t really care, I just wanted to continue to hammer on at a hard pace to “stay warm”. I just had that in my head.

So, onward I went, counting strokes, counting feeds, counting hours. Eventually, the island came into view. It was cloudy by then, but you could make out Mt. Jefferson behind it in what must be a stunning view on a sunny day. Prior to attempting the whole route, I had done each section multiple times, except this one. I had never been all the way to the island and I was really interested to see it. I also didn’t know if the water would be warmer or colder there. On a feed, Dan pointed out that the island was really just a 1/2 mile ahead, “like swimming to the mailbox,” he said. We live in the country, so the mailbox is a short walk away. A headwind had picked up at that point, but wasn’t too bad. I knew if I could get around the island loop, I’d have a nice tailwind helping me get home. I actually remember liking the headwind because it was making me try harder, which I still thought was helping me stay warm. It amazes me how much more comfortable I am with the sensation of effort and pain than I am with cold. But I have been told by multiple people and read multiple forum posts stating that getting comfortable with being cold takes years.

The view approaching Chinook Island from the east.

Sometimes people ask me what I’m thinking about during these things. At this point, one thought that helped me is reminding myself that other people do these things too. It made me feel not alone and not crazy and like the project was doable. I reminded myself that people run 100 miles and there are even a few people who have swum 100 miles! The thought really helped me just keep swimming and know that I would be ok.

Dan started asking me on each feed if I was ok. I kept saying, “I’m having a hard time”, by which I meant that I was uncomfortable, but doing fine, and he took to mean he should start considering pulling me. At one point he said, “do you want us to pull you?”

“What? No!” I replied, confused. Why would I want to get pulled? I was mostly super concerned I wouldn’t be able to put up with the discomfort or “something” would happen making it impossible to finish. I do remember guiltily thinking it’d be nice if it started thundering or we encountered a mat of blue-green algae, causing me to have to end the swim against my will. It’s the first time I’ve had thoughts like that on a swim, so I must’ve been hurting.

On the way back, maybe halfway between the island and the confluence of the Metolius and Deschutes, my shoulder suddenly screamed at me for a few strokes. This is something that happened to me once before, during the Apache Lake Swim at SCAR. It’s like a muscle is cramping and pinching a nerve. It’s an intense, sharp pain that happens during the power part of my stroke. I knew from Apache, that if I could rest it, it would go away and I’d be able to swim normally again. So I swam with just my left arm for awhile, then with my right arm closed into a fist to limit how much power would go to that arm. When that didn’t work, I swam backstroke for most of a 20 minute feed cycle, which only helped somewhat. I’m fortunate in that my backstroke is almost as fast as my freestyle. Backstroke was my best stroke when I was a competitive swimmer and it’s served me well in marathon swimming as another option at times like this. I finished up with some breaststroke and then tentatively tried some normal freestyle again. The pain was gone! I continued on with 20 strokes breast and 80 stroke cycles free for about ten minutes just to make sure, and by then I was almost back to the confluence.

The funny thing is that while my shoulder was messed up, I wasn’t able to “try hard”, and it actually felt warmer than before. Another clue for me to ponder over as I try to figure this temperature thing out.

Here we are approaching the corner, about to turn south back into the main channel of the lake.

The Finish

As I swam south toward the marina, down a stretch of the lake I had been through many times before, I knew I could finish. I was pretty happy about it and just wanted to get there. When we reached the marina, Mary Louise and Lauren parked the Sweetwater in her slip and raced ahead of me down the dock to the spot I had entered the water, while I swam nice and easy through the marina. My three, awesome crew members stood encouragingly by the side of the water while I carefully climbed out next to some kayaks parked there, on a very slippery rock. They stopped the clock when my feet cleared the water, noting the official finish time, and I was done! They grabbed my dry bag from the boat and Dan helped me get dry and warm quickly while I did some shivering and said things like, “that was so hard” and “I can’t believe I just did that”.

The last few strokes…

We decided it would be a good idea for us to walk slowly uphill to the parking lot where the truck was, so that we didn’t just stop moving suddenly. When we arrived, we realized a woman had been walking along behind us, listening to our conversation.

“Is there a reason why you did that?” she asked, her tone almost indignant, with a strong edge of judgement. Startled, I glanced behind me. I find it incredibly difficult to talk to people I don’t know after long swims. I’m getting better at it, but I’ve been known to blatantly ignore comments from strangers, which I sometimes feel bad about later. Usually Dan functions as a PR person for me at these points. But this time, I just sighed and looked ahead as we reached the truck.

“So many reasons,” I said. “So many reasons.”

“Yeah, there are a lot of different reasons,” Dan said to the lady.

“Oh ok,” said the lady. “So probably for a lot of reasons then”.

I got in the truck and sat down. “That was so hard,” I repeated to Dan as we sat there. And this brings me back, full circle, to the Marathon Swimmers Federation, Documented Swims, Long Swims Database and the forum. I don’t need the lady in the parking lot to understand or even know what I did there that day. But I’m not alone. Other people do this too. Other people who can understand what it’s like and why. And that’s the point of doing this swim the way I did, rather than as my own private project.

To quote Sarah Thomas in her famous post,

Most of us don’t strive for recognition or publicity. We just want to be able to say “I did something great today” to the few friends who understand what that means.

The context of her post is about integrity, why we stick to a rigid set of rules and why documentation is necessary for this sport. It’s so we can connect ourselves to each other–the marathon swimmers of not only the present, but also the past and the future, to the other people who are doing similar things. To the “few friends who will understand what that means”. When it gets diluted by different equipment or vastly different rules, it takes away from the hard-earned understanding between two marathon swimmers that can only come from the experience itself.

So it was a long, hard swim for me and I’m very proud of that, but I’m happiest that I decided to do this in a way that I can make this connection and be a part of something bigger than myself.

A self-supported mini-adventure

The water started out colder than I anticipated, but warmed up a few miles in. I was “self-supporting”, which meant I was swimming alone, with no kayaker to throw me water bottles, help me navigate or provide a friendly face along side me. Instead, I was towing “infinit” (my sports drink) in a “hydration bladder” behind me in an aesthetically displeasing, enormous, orange inflatable buoy. I left the hose for the hydration bladder trailing out the opening of the buoy so I could stop and take a drink without a lot of fumbling with the buoy. In addition to the two liter bladder, I had included two one liter “soft” water bottles. So, I had four liters of liquid in total. I didn’t know how long I’d be out. I had long ago stopped counting miles, switching to counting hours instead, so it didn’t matter to me if the buoy slowed me down. The thing is so bright and absurdly huge that boats can see me a long way off, the other main advantage beyond bringing consumables with you. Here, take a look–this is from a different swim, but you can see what I mean. (hydroflask in background for scale)

I got into the water from the swimming dock at the campground. I’d swum here before, but I was hoping to venture further up the lake than I had in the past. Google earth had displayed some interesting geological features I wanted to check out.

My first thought in getting in was that it was rather chilly. Maybe I won’t go all the way up the lake, but just stay within an hour of the dock (and swim back and forth). However, after swimming for an hour, I had gotten used to the water and it was already a degree or two warmer up there. I can keep going, it’s warmer here, I thought. So I kept going. I swam for another hour, uplake, with the wind pushing me onward. After a couple miles, the lake, (which is really just a reservoir) becomes the Deschutes River and continues upstream all the way to the Round Butte Dam, where water flows from Lake Billy Chinook. So I kept swimming up the Deschutes, thinking someday, maybe not today, I’d like to swim all the way to the dam and back.

Lake Simtustus–swimming dock at the campground.

It was even warmer two hours in. I was hoping for a five hour, as I am into “back-to-back-to back” training blocks these days. I had gone three hours Thursday in my tether pool (aka KB Lake), four hours Friday at Suttle lake and five hours Saturday at Elk Lake. Now it was Sunday and I was two hours from my car in the middle of nowhere, by myself. If I turned back now, I would have only four hours. Plus, I wondered what was ahead.

I noticed a sign attached to a lonely, wooden dock on the west side of the lake. It was tiny. I thought about seeing what it would say. But I also remembered that you are not allowed to land on the west side of the river, which is the border for the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. When the lake was formed in 1958 with the construction of Pelton Dam, The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs named it after Pipsher Simtustus, who scouted for the U.S. Army from 1867-1868. More history here.

I had been sticking to swimming on the east side, on the off chance I needed to exit the water. I stopped swimming to look around, I realized suddenly I was nowhere near the east side of the river. The distant bank was actually quite far away. While allowing my mind to wander, my body had drifted into the middle of the river, where an occasional fishing or pontoon boat would cruise by. In fact, there was one such boat headed toward me, distant, but still distinguishable. I started swimming hard, adrenaline up, although I knew my hideously huge buoy would keep me visible. As I swam, I counted 100 stroke cycles to keep my mind off the boat coming. Then, I was at the east bank of the river again and the boat cruised by, its pilot watching me curiously from afar, or so I imagined. I was miles from the parking lot at this point, which I imagine seems odd to your average angler.

I continued on at a relaxed pace, passing a place labeled “Indian Park” on google maps, on the west side of the river. Empty picnic tables sat among dry, brown grass, the scenery suddenly appearing remote and barren.

Upon rounding a point, I could see a gigantic gravel cliff up ahead and thought it would be nice to check out. Looking at my watch, it seemed I might have just enough time. The water was very comfortable at that point. However, I was, for some reason quite anxious. Something was telling me, “you should turn around. You shouldn’t be here”. I thought it was probably just the voice in my head and effortfully tried to ignore it. It was so desolate out there. Every so often a boat would cruise by, far away now, in the middle of the river. “What if they’re rapists and they come and harass you,” said the voice. Sometimes, something would catch the corner of my eye, but when I’d look, it wasn’t there. That’s not all that unusual for me while swimming, but it freaked me out more than usual. I’ll just go to that tree, I said to myself. Once I got to the tree, I’ll just go to that rock. Then I got to the rock. It’s a big rock, did you say you were going to swim to it, or past it? You really should do what you say you’re going to do. Don’t be a liar. Also, if you keep going something bad is going to happen, but also don’t be a liar, go all the way past the rock. I don’t think anything bad will happen to me, it’s just a river with some gravel cliffs and no one around. I can keep swimming. After getting to the end of the large rock. I stopped and drank some infinit out of one of the soft bottles. I noticed that water had gotten in my buoy, like, a lot of water. I had to pour it back out into the lake, while keeping the water bottles in. My electronic car key was in a dry case inside a dry bag inside the buoy. What if you get back and your car won’t open? said the voice. What if what if what if, I said back to it. I wanted to go to the cliffs. What was wrong? Nothing. The water felt good, I wasn’t tired. Nothing was wrong.

Gravel cliffs as seen from google earth, most likely a quarry, but no information available.

I did some strokes using “head up breastroke”, looking around and trying to figure out why I was so nervous. This is really odd. But I really just can’t go any further. So that was it, I turned around and started to swim back. No sooner had I gone a few strokes, when the wind began to gust around me, spraying water at my face with every stroke. I looked at a tree on the side of the bank. All it’s branches were bent the direction I wasn’t trying to go. For a moment, I wondered if I would be able to get back or if the wind current would be too strong. I kept my eyes on the shore and noted as I passed things. I knew I had enough drink to have me swimming for at least six hours, probably a lot more. So as long as I’m making progress, it doesn’t matter if I’m slow, I thought to myself. The wind howled in reply, pushing back on my arms during the part of the stroke when they are out of the water.

Little by little, I made some progress upwind and after awhile, it gave up on harassing me for a bit, only to resume again later. Despite all that, I could tell I was making progress and I noticed I was less anxious heading back than I was headed out. I made sure not to try too hard, so I could save my energy for the cooler water at the end. The water temperature was getting cooler and cooler as I progressed back. I speculated this was on account of the put-in being quite close to the next dam, so I imagine the water could be deeper there. Finally, I reached a spot I recognized as being about an hour away from the dock, and then another about 30 mins away. Since I had planned a 5 hour swim and I had turned back at 2.25 hrs, I swam into an inlet I have been to many times. The water was warmer there so I did some easy swimming, drank some drink and floated awhile until my teeth started to chatter. I alternated hard and easy for the last 30 minutes and felt pretty strong, not too cold. And then there they were, the orange buoys marking the dock.

The buoys are like a little fence, marking the small “swimming area”. I swam over the cable connecting the buoys, pulling my own buoy behind and over as well. Looking at my watch, having swum 5 hours and one minute, I clutched the metal swimming ladder and climbed slowly out. I reminded myself to use hand sanitizer upon returning to the car on account of touching a shared surface, even though no one else appeared to be swimming that day. I pulled an ear plug out of my ear to the sound of applause coming from the deck of the small cafe and country store associated with the campground. So awkward. I looked to see a scattering of people, staring at me and indeed, clapping their hands and yelling “woohoos”. Bemused, I wondered if they were some of the people who had passed me upriver on pontoon boats, or just random people who thought it’d be fun to yell a good “woohoo” at someone. In any case, I gave them all a grimace and a thumbs up and stiffly walked back to my car. There, I changed out of my suit and sat shivering, drinking still-hot chocolate from a thermos and wondering about the whole adventure.

The 24 hour relay: year two

I sat shivering in the sauna, the dry heat filling my salted nose as my teeth rattled. I tried to do several squats, as I had heard that could help one warm up quicker, but my legs were too wobbly. Instead, I sat on the top bench, my wet suit hung to dry as I chatted with the other ladies. Now, I can hardly remember the details of these conversations but the feeling of solidarity is still lingering in my chest. I made new friends and got to know old ones better. There’s nothing like a beautiful day, chilly waters and the glowing city at night to lay the groundwork for friendship and the sharing of rich experiences together.

The relay began at 9 am Saturday as per usual. Team Yeti (my team) was hyped and ready to go with our first official swimmer, Shannon, from Southern Oregon. Unable to imagine waiting until my first scheduled swim shift at 1:15, I got in just after 9 and stroked toward a crowd of yetis who all had the same idea about not waiting. I caught up with them at the opening of the cove, just in time to share a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the center of the above photo you can see the opening we swam through to look at the bridge and chat.

This relay is no competition whatsoever. You get in at a predetermined time and swim around in this cove at whatever pace you feel like for however far you feel like. Then you tag the next person and get out. Or you tag the next person and swim around some more if you don’t want to get out yet. I love it so much, because it’s just swimming. There’s no racing or prizes or results or awards. And the people who show up for it appreciate this aspect of it just as much as I do, which creates a congenial atmosphere.

So in that spirit, the group of us hung out there in the bay, outside the cove for a little bit and chatted in the chilly 52 degree water, while Cindy explained the various landmarks in and around the cove to a couple teammates who had not swum there before.

To give you an idea of scale: if you swim the perimeter, passing the opening in the center of the picture and making your way back along the boats on the right, it works out to be about 3/4 of a mile.

I was pretty pleased to find that I was able to stay in longer (5 x 1 hour swims) than last year’s (4 x 45 min) swims, despite the water being maybe a degree cooler. You’d be surprised at what a difference a degree makes. However, many people at the relay can swim for hours at that temperature, a testament to the body’s ability to adapt to surviving colder temperatures for those willing to push their personal limits of comfort. In fact, one such swimmer, Evan Morrison, completed a nearly nine hour swim– leaving the cove where the relay took place, rounding angel island and returning to the cove. Strong currents pushed him and his support crew far off course, resulting in a swim that was hours longer than anticipated. Such a feat is hard to get your mind around, especially if you’ve experienced the way the cold can steal the strength away from your arms and legs, rendering even strong swimmers weak and clumsy in the water. The mental strength and resilience required to persist under those conditions is mind boggling.

In any case, suffice it to say, I was hanging out with a very tough bunch of individuals. I had great conversations, ate handfuls of gummy bears, caught a wink of sleep in a racquetball court full of happily warmed and snoring swimmers and admired the beautiful, historic Dolphin Club (established 1877) that hosted the event.

The South End Rowing Club and The Dolphin Club (part of the same original building):

As usual, I was too distracted by the present moment to take as many photos as I would’ve liked, but here’s one of me and Shannon, after our multiple CVS runs.

The story here is that event organizer, Suzie Dods asked us to grab some milk and half & half. She also requested a Coca Cola, which we assured ourselves we would remember no problem. We got to the store and were greeted by a friendly employee who noted he was happy we looked “so comfortable”. We were so tickled we forgot the Coke! Upon returning to the club, we realized we also deeply regretted not purchasing such traditional athletic snacks such as Doritos and Cheetos, so we immediately departed again to purchase the forgotten items.

Luckily, one of the yetis, Daniela Klaz, is a professional photographer, so I got to relive the experience through her photos. Another yeti, Eivind, created an amazing series of videos documenting the event, which you can check out here, here and here

Daniela took a lot of absolutely awesome photos, but here is one of my favorite photos that Daniela took of me, Kristin and Margot, snuggly warm in our yeti hats.

The sunrise is one memory I’ve only got a picture of in my mind. I got in at 7 am and backstroked out to the opening, looking southeast at the increasingly glowing sky. For a moment, I thought maybe I was too late, but then I turned over to swim freestyle and was greeted by pinks and purples in the western sky. I stroked quickly, thinking if I hurried out of the cove and into the bay, I’d have a heck of a view of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise. I wasn’t disappointed. I treaded water, kicking hard vertically to stay warm and took in the view, trying to absorb the colors and the glow of the morning light illuminating the bridge. All too soon, I turned around and swam back into the cove, winding my way back to the dock and then around the perimeter again. I thought about how some people have a fear of missing out and how thankful I am to have these experiences that completely absorb your senses. The visual beauty of the water and sky, the thrumming of my earplugs vibrating as I pull my head through the water for a breath, the taste and smell of the salty sea and of course, the harsh but somehow soothing feel of the chilling water supporting my body with every stroke. After another hour, it was time to head back in, time to go through the sauna re-warning routine one last time. It was 8 am and the relay would end at 9. A good number of my yeti teammates decided to swim the last round together. Luckily, I was able to rewarm in plenty of time to catch everyone at the finish, playing and frolicking in the water as yetis do.

Now that I’m back home in Oregon, I’m already looking forward to doing it all again next year!

Catalina Channel Swim

Here is a little introduction for people unfamiliar with the swim. If you know what it is, feel free to scroll past this part to get to “the story”! For a write up on my crew, Kristine, Jamie and Dan, along with how I was feeling the day before, check out Catalina Preview.

The Catalina Channel

The Catalina Channel is the ocean between Catalina Island and mainland California. Despite the hit song “26 miles to Catalina”, the shortest distance between the island and mainland is actually 20.5 miles. You may swim more than that if you aren’t good at keeping a consistent distance between yourself and your escort boat.

There isn’t a race or group event going across the channel. Swimmers charter one of three boats to guide them across as either a solo attempt (one swimmer only, buddy swimmer limited to three one hour swims), a tandem swim (two swimmers going the same pace, together at all times) or a relay (swimmers trading off in shifts to reach the other side). I did the solo option, which meant that my friend Jamie Proffitt could swim the three one hour shifts, with at least one hour of alone swimming preceding each swim.

The Catalina Channel is one of three marathon swims making up, “The Triple Crown”. The other two are the English Channel and the swim around Manhattan Island, now called, “The Twenty Bridges Marathon Swim”.

The Catalina Channel Swimming Federation

Swims are ratified by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation (CCSF) and are done under specific rules. For example, a swimmer can only wear a swimsuit, cap, goggles and ear plugs—no wetsuits or fancy speedsuits or things attached to you like tow float-buoys and whatnot. One of the most common questions I got beforehand from folks was, “can you wear a wetsuit? Why not?” Well, first of all, the water was quite warm (72F) for most of the swim. There were times I regretted wearing a silicone cap instead of the slightly cooler latex one. A wetsuit would’ve been unbearable and maybe even dangerously warm, not to mention the chafing (inevitable after so many hours, regardless of what product you use). But one of the biggest reason channel swimmers don’t wear wetsuits is because training your body to deal with water temperature is part of the training. It’s part of the sport, just as getting good at riding an actual bicycle (not an electric powered bike) is part of triathlon. Although some people have a natural talent for dealing with the cold, everyone can improve, because our bodies go through a series of adaptations when continually exposed to cold water.

The CCSF provides two observers to be present on the boat and monitor not only rule following (no hanging on the kayak, no breaks, no one touching you), but also health indicators (are you peeing regularly, are you vomiting, shivering, feeling ok). They have the authority to end the swim if they think you are in danger–a good idea since they are more objective than your crew, who are often made up of close friends.

The Bottom Scratcher

I chartered The Bottom Scratcher for my swim. There are two other options, Magician and Pacific Star. I don’t know much about those, but I loved the Bottom Scratcher, her captains and and her crew. The Bottom Scratcher has been guiding people across the channel for decades. The large, 25 person dive boat is no longer under the original ownership, but current owner Captain Kevin Bell worked under the old owner for many years before taking over. Everyone we talked to spoke extremely positively of Captain Kevin, so we knew we were in good hands. Someone told us that he also works as an engineer and that consequently, the boat is in extremely good condition mechanically. This is a big deal–what happens if the swim you trained so hard for has to be cancelled on account of a boat that breaks down?

The Bottom Scratcher is the boat with the American flag on top in the picture below.

The Story

…Hour 10

Me: why is it taking so long? Why is our progress slowing down suddenly?

Other me: I don’t know, dude. There’s probably a current. Just keep swimming.

Me: I’m just so irritated. We could be there by now.

Other Me: why do you want to get there? You like swimming. You’re not even that tired. Don’t you kind of want to swim as much as you can?

Me: not really.

Other Me: well you’re not that tired and you’re already here, so swimming longer than you thought isn’t really a bad thing.

Me: well I guess you’re right in that regard.

Looking back on my internal dialogue, I’m aware of just how wacky this sounds, but let’s take a look at how I got to this point…

14 hours earlier: Before the Swim

After The Bottom Scratcher left the harbor around 7:30 pm, the pre-swim meeting began, led by Captain Jim. We learned that two captains (Jim and Kevin) would be working in shifts, along with two deck hands, (Ryan and David). Roxy, Joel and Camilla, from the CCSF would be observing. Lauren was working the galley for the boat crew.

The captains explained all the rules of the boat and what everyone’s roles would be. They both were very clear, informative and approachable while still projecting a professional feeling of authority. I felt I could already trust them. Even though they said having two kayaks was a first for them, they allowed me to swim between the kayaks as long as we would immediately adjust if they found it wasn’t working. They explained they would be piloting from the top of the boat, and must be able to see everyone in the water very clearly at all times. Only red lights were allowed on board and on kayakers’ headlamps, so I was happy I’d already insisted on the same rules, so all three of my friends were properly equipped. The observers would need to be able to see me clearly at night to count my strokes (if there’s a problem your stroke rate will decrease). Consequently, everyone wanted me to swim nearest to the Bottom Scratcher so they could have the best view of me, with both kayakers or kayaker and buddy swimmer off to my right. I was so thankful they were flexible and agreed to give it a try with me swimming right next to Dan, flanked on the other side by Kristine in the second kayak or Jamie during his swim shifts. I know doing it this way made a big difference in my swim.

Track.rs

Many of my family and friends expressed interest in the swim, so I decided to register  with track.rs, tracking software developed by fellow marathon swimmer, Evan Morrison. For those of you who watched me swim (or anyone else’s tracker), you’ll recognize this series of orange dots.

Messages Image(112753228).jpeg

While we were riding on the boat to the island, Jamie got a message from Evan himself, saying that the tracker was not working well (it had poor accuracy). The two of them verified all the settings were correct and Evan somehow switched to tracking the Bottom Scratcher itself rather than Dan’s phone, as we had originally planned. I believe there was a second hiccup during the swim and he and Jamie worked it out again! All this took place without me even realizing there was a problem. What amazing support I had. If you want to register your swim with track.rs, go to https://track.rs.

The Nausea Begins

As the boat pulled out of the harbor, it rocked gently and I found the motion comforting, as if I were in a giant rocking chair. Later, Kristine mentioned she was feeling the same pleasant sensation. I guess I’m not prone to sea sickness, I thought happily. But after just a little while I started to feel queasy. Stepping outside I felt much better and stood on deck with Dan for awhile. He started working on getting the kayaks ready so I climbed up to the top of the boat and hung out with Jamie and Kristine for awhile.

View from the upper deck of Dan getting his kayak ready.

The view was great but I was starting to feel nauseous. I didn’t really get why, since the water wasn’t all that wavy, compared to other situations I’ve been in. I drank a ginger brew but the feeling just got worse. I paced, talked to Dan, went inside, went outside, stared at the horizon, but nothing helped. Finally, I found myself leaning my head on the kayak, eyes shut, pushing on my temples. “Just don’t vomit. You need those calories,” Other Me told me, thinking about the dinner I had consumed. I went into the cabin and crawled into a little bunk, dozing while squeezing my eyes shut and trying to remember where the anti-motion sickness pressure point is on your wrist. In the photo above, you can see the little bunks underneath where the kayaks are. There are some other bunks in the “indoor” part of the boat.

Someone told me it was time to get up and swim. It turned out we had come to a stop. I got up and realized I was freezing cold and my teeth were chattering. Apparently, Other Me thought we were in for the night and had turned the core-temp thermostat down. I drank a hot mug of water and shivered while everyone else got ready. After about a half hour, the queasiness had subsided and I had stopped shivering. I was happy and ready to swim!

The Start

We started just before 11:30pm. Dan and Kristine got in first, with their kayaks lit up with glow sticks and Christmas lights. They paddled off to the island. I was next and jumped in when directed, following a spotlight from the boat to a rocky beach. I immediately noticed the wonderful buoyancy of the salt water, feeling ecstatically great. I had been told to grab a rock from the start on the island to pair up with a rock from the finish as a swim souvenir. Rock collecting is another hobby Dan and I do together so I was really excited for this part. I couldn’t see much, but spotted a nice looking quartzy one and grabbed it. I shoved it under my swim cap, next to my forehead and raised my hand in the traditional ready-to-start signal I had been instructed to use. When I touched the water, my hand went down so the observers could officially start the clock.

I swam over to Kristine and dropped the rock in her kayak, making sure not to come close to touching her or the kayak as that is against the rules. The rock made a loud thunk against the plastic and I was off on my first hour.

Swimming between the two well-lit kayaks (below).

Hour 1

The first hour was not like I visualized and not like my fear-ridden practice swims. I felt great, cruising through the buoyant water and happy to finally be on my way. The novelty of the whole thing superseded any anxiety I may have otherwise had. I cut off any thoughts that may have steered me down the road of considering what wildlife might be in the dark water below. Instead I focused on orienting myself to the kayaks and Bottom Scratcher, getting settled in and holding myself back from swimming too hard. As each arm went in, thousands of tiny lights cascaded off of it, like a galaxy of stars against the night sky. This was the much anticipated phosphorescence people had told me about. It was most apparent when I’d do a few strokes of breaststroke. Pushing my arm around underwater would light these small organisms up like fireflies. It was beautiful.

Hour 2

Before I knew it, hour one was up and Jamie was trading places with Kristine to swim with me for hour two. It was during this hour we saw what I call, “glow thumbs” for the first time. These were glowing organisms about the size of your thumb, rising up in clusters from the depths below. We were told they had freaked someone out the night before but not to worry about them. Knowing they were harmless, I found them enchanting.

Hours 3-4

I started comparing the current timeline to my Waldo swim a few weeks ago. Around four hours, Other Me pointed out that this was around the time that Dan met me during the Waldo swim. “You’ve just got a ‘three islands route’ left”, Other Me said in reference to the 22k route in Waldo Lake that I did for the first time last year.

“Just a three-islands route, hmph”, I grumbled back. “My arms are already starting to hurt”.

“Sure. But do they really hurt that bad?”

“No… not really I guess”, I sighed and kept swimming. Somewhere during this time period the nausea crept back in, getting worse and worse as the time went by.

Hour 5

Jamie got in for his second swim. This time he swam much closer to me, instead of where he normally would swim if we were in a lake. I was sandwiched between him and the kayak so it was a bit tricky to avoid running into either him or the kayak.

“You know, it’s ok to ask for what you want,” the Other Me said. I didn’t answer.

“Just ask!” It insisted.

“Ugh. Fine!” I stopped swimming and Jamie looked up, startled.

“Could I have a little more room?” I asked, as politely as I could manage.

“Of course!” He answered graciously. Then he swam in the perfect spot, just off to my left, staying slightly behind me so as to be compliant with the rules of not giving me a draft.

I later learned that he had been told to swim closer to me than on the first swim and he didn’t really know if it was a safety thing so he decided not to object. Then I went and told him to swim further from me! Poor guy couldn’t win, but he said he was fine and didn’t get any further re-direction from the crew or observers. Having him in there helped mark the passing hours and break up the monotony with some companionship.

Hours 6-7

Kristine got back in the kayak. It was nice to see her and have a change to break up the monotony. It sure was helpful having her there in addition to Dan. I stopped for a “feed” (water mixed with infinit go-far powder in my case) and started back up again with backstroke to stretch out my shoulders. I kept heading toward my right when I’d do this. When Kristine was in, I’d almost run into the kayak (actually did at one point), but when she wasn’t in, I’d drift toward the Bottom Scratcher. At one point I was heading straight for it, coming so close everyone on deck was yelling at me to turn around before I noticed. So it really was helpful having Kristine on one side and Dan in the other, boxing me in. It was a hard job for the kayakers, but allowed me to breath to both sides without zig zagging around in the area between Dan and the Bottom Scratcher. Dan even mentioned later that having Kristine on the water with him was a comfort, especially when the moon fell behind the fog and we found ourselves all in a sea of darkness.

The Nausea Returns

By hours five, six and seven, the nausea had returned and was making me not want to try hard. The moon had gone behind some clouds, before eventually setting, so it was a lot darker. The darker it is, the more likely a swimmer is to get vertigo from not being able to see the horizon or the contrast between sky and water. I didn’t feel dizzy, but there wasn’t any chop and the swells were small–like a foot high maybe. These channel swims are almost always done starting at night because the wind makes the water choppier in the afternoon. Swimming at night usually means calmer waters. As I swum, I questioned whether I’d prefer the chop to the nausea.

I don’t typically want to eat solid food during swims, but this time the idea of it made my stomach reel. I knew it was almost time for me to have coffee and a peanut butter cliff-builders bar. But I just couldn’t. I felt so sick that I had goosebumps despite the warm-ish water. I even felt weirdly chilled like you do when you’re really nauseous. I asked for the water temp during a feed. Seventy-four was the answer. Wow, I thought. That’s really, really warm. I realized it was more like a cold sweat feeling from the nausea. Just then, my stomach heaved in an odd, almost gentle way. Very odd, actually, and out came the tinniest little throw-up you ever did see. I don’t even feel comfortable saying I puked, because it really wasn’t like that. But it wasn’t like acid reflux either. Gross, but oh so relieving! I felt so good and it was like I was starting fresh and rested again. My body cruised through the water with no struggle and I savored the lack of nausea… until it started to build again about ten minutes later. When you puke, your brain cells actually releases certain chemicals, neurotransmitters that make you feel good, similar to taking a Xanax. I reflected on this as I swam along, hoping for the best of both worlds: mini-puking without losing much water or calories. I thought perhaps burping more would help, so I gave myself a free pass on the builders bar and asked Jamie to tell Kristine to get the other Coca Cola ready for me when she got back in for hours 6-7. I started drinking fizzy vanilla coke for every other feed, which caused frequent little burp-ups that were relieving every time.

Somewhere in there something stung my arm. It felt like a brief electric shock and went away as quickly as it came. There had been a few other, milder pin pricks earlier that I assumed were maybe sea lice. In any event, I imagine it was a jelly, but what do I know? And it didn’t pose a problem of any kind so if it was, it was definitely the gentle variety.

Hours 7, 8 and 9

This was definitely the most enjoyable three hours of the swim. First light right around hour 7 brought hope and a morale boost and looked something like this:

As soon as the sun rose, my nausea vanished, further adding weight to the theory it wasn’t about the water conditions, but more about the almost non-existent horizon on the ocean at night. I stored that information away for later swim planning. With every feed, I felt stronger and happier than the last. At one point I told Dan I was feeling “800% better than when we started”. Plus, Other Self was in rare form with its glib remarks and witty humor. I wish I could remember some of the things that were said, but most of them are gone now. A lot of it was discussion of the going-ons in the boat and Dan’s kayak. I’m not actually sure if any of it was truly funny or if I was just thinking ordinary thoughts, but those thoughts just seemed extremely entertaining at that time. I do remember that my friend Anna, from Michigan (which is on east coast time), mentioned she’d be working an early shift and planned to check the tracker frequently, “while I go pee,” she had explained. As I calculated what time it was in various places my friends live, this memory bubbled up. Other Self thought it was hilarious and kept bringing it up. “Hey, maybe you should pee right now too,” it suggested. “You and Anna could be peeing at the same time, you know.” Later, Anna told me her co-workers were confused by her frequent bathroom breaks, during which she’d reload the tracker and maybe pee or not.

Here’s me peeing and drinking a coke at the same time!

I took all these pee jokes in stride– yelling “PEEING!!” loudly for the whole boat to hear whenever I did, which was almost exactly every twenty minutes, like clockwork. It cracked me up most of the swim and I thoroughly enjoyed this part. However, it’s really a serious thing because if you aren’t peeing it can be a sign of kidney failure and the observers need to know your body is functioning well.

Mind Games

At some point, Other Self suggested we play, “The Alphabet Game”, which involves saying a positive word starting with each letter in the alphabet. This game is really hard when you’re in a bad mood, but a lot of fun when you’re feeling great. Either way, it keeps the mind busy and boosts morale. Other Self also put before me an intriguing riddle: “why has Jamie decided not to get into the water for his third swim yet?” Trying to solve this puzzle was irrationally enjoyable and it passed the time. I’ve got it! I shouted in my head, after a bit. I had solved the riddle. Jamie wanted to swim through the cold part at the end of the swim to see what it felt like. I felt so proud to have discovered his true motives. Too bad I wasn’t even close. He had like three or four motives, none of them including swimming through the cold upwelling.

Another mind game was that Other Self rewarded me with a new Lady Gaga song at the start of each twenty minute feed cycle. I could have that song in my head and earn a new one by swimming on to the next feed break. No cheating by switching songs before the next break.

The Doldrums of Hour 10

I started to get impatient. I knew we had been on track to finish in around ten hours, so imagine my dismay when progress slowed to a crawl. Later I learned it was due to a strong current working against us. It was near the trench that is well known for causing an upwelling of cold water. We speculated maybe it contributed to the current since the tide was still going in at that time and should’ve been helping us. It just goes to show how complicated the ocean is. After passing the trench, progress sped up again, much to my relief. However, before that, as we were proceeding at a glacial pace, Dan and I both found ourselves independently frustrated. The fog next to the land was so thick that it looked like just open ocean lay ahead. Every so often, I’d pick my head up to look (always a mistake). Finally, when it was time for a feed, I yell-asked, “where’s the fucking land?!”

“It’s foggy,” Dan said calmly. Later I learned he had been equally irritated and had asked the exact same question in the exact same tone. We both silently concluded the crew was lying to us and we actually had ten miles or so to go.

“Are you ok?” He asked for the 30th time. It really was 30. He had to ask every feed for the observer’s log and it was getting old.

“I guess.” I replied, testily.

“No. ARE YOU OK,” he barked back.

“YES!” I screamed and started swimming again. I immediately felt bad for screaming. It wasn’t Dan’s fault he had to ask me if I was ok every twenty minutes. It wasn’t even the observer’s fault. It’s actually a good idea to force people to check in no matter what.

I picked my head up and looked again. This time I thought I saw a skyscraper through the fog. Maybe it’s clearing up or maybe we are finally getting closer, I thought. Later, when it really did clear up, this became a good laugh for us all. If you’ve ever been to Palos Verdes, where the swim ends, you’ll understand. The beach is totally undeveloped, with huge cliffs looming over the shore. There definitely are no skyscrapers there. Dan told me later his eyes got a bit buggy too and it looked as though every wave was a potential shark fin.

Jamie could see morale was sinking to an all-swim-low, so he shouted, “oooo look! Dolphins!!” I stopped swimming and looked around frantically, not wanting to miss the famous, playful companions. Later I learned it was a prank (he cracks me up), but I was so convinced, that I conjured up a hallucinated dolphin very far off in the distance. So I guess the prank worked on me at least. It was during this time that the dialogue between me and my other self opening this story occurred. It really was ok to swim longer and my arms hurt, but I otherwise felt my energy was good and I could keep going indefinitely. It just seemed more like my previous expectations were what was bugging me more than how I felt physically.

The Finish

Finally the fog cleared up and we could see the cliffs of Palos Verdes ahead of us. It still seemed miles and miles away, so I resolved to not get my hopes up, despite being told we had 3/4 of a mile to go. I saw Dan talking with the captain and heard the word “choice”, which meant they were discussing where to land–the closer, rocky area or the further sandy beach. It turned out the captain was telling Dan there was “only one choice”, the sandy beach, which was fine with me, (of course–because I had decided I like swimming). It also appeared Dan and I were going to go all the way in together, which I had really hoped for. As the shore became more and more clearly visible, I stubbornly refused to get my hopes up. Finally, I could see the bottom and knew I had made it. I felt suddenly emotional and walked slowly up the beach until I heard The Bottom Scratcher honk its horn, signaling the end of the swim!

Dan gave me a huge, long hug and jumped into the water himself, with a happy “wahooooo!” It made me feel happy to see him enjoying the water and our finish. I was so proud that we had both done the whole channel together!

We looked around for a rock to collect from the finish of the swim that could go with the one I had grabbed from the start. I spotted a dark-colored striped one and thought it’d go well with he white quartzy one from the start. Dan said I should choose, and it turned out he had been eyeing the same rock.  So I grabbed it and put it in the kayak to take back to The Bottom Scratcher.

I found myself getting chilly standing on the windy beach in my swimsuit and knew I couldn’t hang out for too long. I started shivering and signaled to Dan I was going to go ahead and swim back to the boat. He came too and I was greeted by warm smiles and congratulations. Kristine was holding my towel, exactly what I needed right then and I finally got to drink the hot cup of chocolate I was hoping to have mid-swim.

Channel Swim Friendly Local Businesses

There were a number of locals who really helped us out and if you are planning a Catalina swim, or are visiting the area, you may want to check these spots.

House of Owls (Airbnb)

We stayed in this two bedroom, one bath, airbnb that was a few minutes drive from The Bottom Scratcher’s marina. We even walked down there the evening before to check it out. The place was clean, quiet and relaxing. There was a washer and dryer, oven, toaster oven, various ways to make coffee, fridge and freezer, hot shower, everything you really need. The couch was even comfortable enough to sleep on!

OEX Sunset (Kayak rentals)

It was a big of a drive to get to Sunset Beach from the airbnb in San Pedro, but it was worth it. This place rented us a long, stable sit-on-top kayak for $45 for one day–just pick up anytime and drop off anytime the next day. The really amazing thing was that their employees are professional kayak escorts for the channel! Ramon Hipolito (who turned out to be the brother of our observer, Roxy) allowed us to ask him an hour’s worth of questions and suggested we rent the kayak he had paddled across the channel last week. They were so helpful and reassuring that it set our minds at ease–we were getting a kayak that was appropriate for what we were doing.

Nazalie’s

Fantastic Lebanese food in San Pedro, just a few blocks from the airbnb. I recommend the falafel sandwich!

Bunz

If you need a pre-swim burger, try this place. They have a million options, but I just got the simple burger. It was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. They don’t use ground beef, we were told, just ground tri-tip and brisket!

Rafaello’s Ristorante

We found this place in downtown San Pedro based on its great yelp reviews and decided to go there the evening after the swim. We walked in to find there were two large families celebrating birthdays and everyone was talking and laughing. Normally, I don’t like loud restaurants, but the celebratory atmosphere was so happy and full of love, I immediately relaxed. As I sat looking at the menu, wondering how many entrees and appetizers I should order, our waiter brought us two, huge (complimentary) plates of bread, marinated tomatoes and roasted red peppers. My eyes wanted to jump out of my head and my taste buds were freaking out with joy. Next came delicious salads of fresh mixed greens. We hadn’t even ordered yet! Finally, I ordered chicken spaghetti in red sauce and a glass of wine. While we were waiting, our waiter chatted with another table, then suddenly broke into song. He had an amazing voice and sang what sounded like a lullaby in Italian, while the family at the table he was singing to held up their six month old baby. My mind was blown. We ate as much as we could and asked for the rest to go. Our waiter told us he had planned to bring us some spumoni and wondered if we really needed to go already. Wow, I wished I had room for spumoni, but my poor stomach couldn’t fit much in it after all. We sadly asked for the check, but left feeling happy, satisfied and thankful.

 

Catalina Channel Swim Preview

I’m going to swim The Catalina Channel tomorrow, you guys! Obviously there will be a post after the swim, but this is just a quick, little update about how I’m feeling the day before.

How am I feeling?

People keep asking me this one and I have to stop to check–it’s hard to describe. The best answer is that I’m feeling “amped”. It’s just a lot–a lot of energy and sometimes it feels excited and other times terrifying to the point of tears. I don’t think I’ve felt this way before. I think I like it and I’m pretty sure this is what I signed up for.

Wants and Not-Wants

Thinking back to the day I called The Bottom Scratcher, my chartered escort boat and put a deposit down on the swim, I recall wanting to experience the ocean by being in it. By being in it for ten or so hours. At night. I had read about the phosphorescence in other’s blog posts–the water lighting up as your arms enter and disturb tiny organisms in the water. I had heard of pods of dolphins playfully accompanying swimmers and pictured myself facing the challenging sting of jellyfish to discover what I’m made of. The ocean is a big deal and I want to be a part of it. I want to feel small, because I am small in the grand scheme of things. I want to be in the wild, where things are real, where there is no black line, no concrete walls. Heck, there’s not even a shoreline to be seen. I want to move up and down with the waves, even if it means I puke, as many channel swimmers often do. I don’t want there to be predators of the size that would look at me as potential food. I don’t want to be in any kind of danger, whatsoever. I don’t want to feel panic symptoms that make me want to stop, tread water and look around. I don’t want the scary thoughts that are already bombarding my mind. But real life isn’t an Amazon order where you just point and click at the items you want and scroll past the ones you don’t want. I signed up for this, knowing what I was getting into. And also, this is my first channel crossing so I really have no idea what I’m getting into at all.

A Solid Crew

The best thing I have going for me right now is a very solid crew. Here they are, walking through San Pedro like the rockstars they definitely are.

My boyfriend, Dan will be the crew chief, because he knows me best and has done so many swims with me already. He’s solid in an emergency and solid in a non-emergency. I know I can trust and count on him no matter how I’m feeling during the swim. Experienced marathon swimmer, Jamie Proffitt will be the deck guy, fill in kayaker, social media updater and buddy swimmer, which means he can swim up to three, one hour periods with me (excluding the first hour, which I must swim alone). Jamie’s optimistic attitude had me talked out of all my fears and doubts before we even got to the airport. They will return, no doubt, but I have only to make it through that first hour until he will be cruising along with me for hour #2. Then there’s Kristine Senkier, about as solid and self-less person as you could ever hope for on a long swim like this. We swam together almost daily through the winter of 2017, before END-WET, so she’s already seen me grumpy from fatigue. She’s paddled some of my training swims and was Jamie’s paddler when he did SCAR. She’s also a tough, resilient and fast swimmer in her own right. This is an all-star crew and there’s a comfort with having people I know well and trust around me. When I think about them, the fear shifts to excitement and I just can’t wait. So wish me well, friends, and stay tuned for the story after the swim.

Welcome to the Pain Cave: 10.5 Hours in Waldo Lake

Stroke. Stroke. Breath. Stroke. Stroke. I stop to look around and survey my progress. Waldo Lake is as beautiful as ever, but the southern island hasn’t gotten any closer. “It’s right there!” Dan calls to me, pointing emphatically. “C’mon! Just a little further!”

Everything hurts at this point. I know I can finish, but it’s painful and I know I need to take it easy, stroke by stroke. I also know that I can’t stop. Even in just a handful of seconds not swimming, my teeth have begun to chatter. At this point, I’ve been in the water for ten hours, with about a half hour left to go. I just need to loop around the southern, final island, and swim about 1500 meters to the boat ramp where the warm truck awaits me.

Dan is confused as to why I am stopping and I have become only minimally communicative. I’m willing to answer hypothermia test questions like what Dan’s middle name is, but everything else seems like too much work. I start swimming again. I’ll get there eventually, I think. Even the songs in my head have quit playing. I watch Dan’s face, above me, from the water. Something about looking up at him gives me confidence. He doesn’t notice me looking at him, but he’s all I see for a bit.

As we round the southern island, I fantasize about walking my way around it, but I keep swimming. The water is only three feet deep and my hands graze the rocks as I swim. When I do eventually make it to shore, Dan holds my arm as I walk out of the water and put my feet into my Tevas. The truck is only about 15 yards away. I can do this, I think, as I head towards it.

As I warm up in the truck and Dan unloads the boat, I reflect back on the swim, feeling rather accomplished but also humbled. The point of this swim was definitely to push my limits with both cold and distance and to try to get to a place of discomfort that I hadn’t been to before, a place runners call, “the pain cave”. Mission accomplished.

The day started out all right. At 5400 feet altitude, in the cascade mountains, the air and water are cool even in August. The air temperature was 40 degrees and the water was 62 at the inlet where we started, but 63-64 later in the day. It was colder than I had anticipated, but perfect conditions for pushing my limits. I didn’t want to ask Dan to paddle with me for ten plus hours, so I swam around the lake by myself for about four hours, self-supporting with my huge, orange buoy. Here’s me at the start of the swim, backstroking out of the inlet.

I think the self-supporting was my first error as it took about 2-3 minutes per feed–fumbling with the buoy, deflating it to get the water bottle out, re-inflating it after getting the bottle back in. During that time I could feel my core temperature drop, and I compensated for that by swimming way too hard for the beginning of a long swim. I felt great at the time, but I wasn’t pacing myself the way I did at END-WET. I also kept putting off the feed stops, drinking only 10 ounces twice over the course of almost four hours.

The self-supported course took me from the shadow bay day use parking inlet and around rhododendron island. I then loosely contoured around the south side of the lake, rounding the southern island for the first time this swim. Here is the gps watch track from when I was wearing it for part one. The triangle is where I started and the square is where I met Dan, stopped the watch and restarted it in the lower battery using mode for kayaking.

WaldoTrack1_2019

I swam back to the inlet to pick up another water bottle and was delighted to see Dan paddling out toward me. We hadn’t planned to meet for another 1-2 hours and I can’t even begin to describe what a comfort it was having him there, paddling next to me. I unbuckled my buoy and watch and handed them to him, showing him how to deflate the buoy. We had decided we would do our “three islands course”, which we pioneered for the first time last year (details of navigating that course here). I knew the course would take around another 6.5 hours and we set off on the east side of the lake, heading north.

Here’s the track from the gps watch when Dan was wearing it for part two.

WaldoTrack2_2019

As we passed the shadow bay campground, Dan pointed in front of us to a large pod of swimmers with wetsuits and buoys. I was delighted to see them and wanted to go playfully great them, my fellow in-water recreators. However, I thought better of it–I was too cold for conversation and they did not stop or look up as they passed. So I swam on.

Oh yeah, did I mention the mountain views??

I stayed cold for another couple hours, but by then it was around 12:30-1pm so the air had warmed up a lot and eventually translated into a slightly warmer me. By the time we reached the north island, I was feeling really good and told Dan I wanted to eat a sandwich bite near the north island. I made these little bite-sized turkey sandwiches in camp the night before.

There were a ton of people floating in the protected area near the island, but there were also some slightly warmer patches of water. When Dan handed me a sandwich bite, it tasted amazing. I gobbled it down as quickly as I could, but there were at least four bites worth in one “bite” and it was a lot of chewing. I handed him the last little bite and swam on quickly to try to rewarm.

This section may have been the best part of the swim. My energy felt good, I wasn’t too cold, my internal DJ was playing all my favorite songs and the sun shone high overhead. The water was the sapphire-blue color Waldo is famous for and I remembered I had packed a coca-cola to drink around hour 8. All these things out me in a great mood. I didn’t have a chance to take a picture underwater, but here’s a picture from a past Waldo swim to remind you of that color.

And here I am Saturday, swimming toward the horizon, headed south. The water is that same blue, looking down into it.

As the hours ticked by, my arms began to hurt. I’d take “breaks” by swimming backstroke, but eventually that hurt too. Things started to get a little… interesting, but there continued to be intermittent patches of feeling pretty good. At several points, Dan checked in, asking me questions and telling me my stroke count. I practiced being honest with him, “it hurts a lot,” I told him. “Are you in a danger zone?”, he wanted to know. “No, I’m totally fine, just uncomfortable”. The challenging thing for me about swimming in the cold (or cool) water is that I found myself perpetually choosing between more pain or more cold. If I swam hard to stay warm, I’d hurt more, but if I backed off and swam gently, my teeth would start to chatter. I settled for trading off, swimming harder for a bit, then easy again.

We eventually rounded Rhododendron Island for the second time for me that day and Dan went to the bathroom while I swam on. By the time he caught up to me again, on the way to the southern island, I was hurting. Midway there I felt a fatigue so strong come over me like a blanket. I could no longer really get my heart rate up, and everything hurt, no matter what I did. Nothing was injured, just very fatigued. I knew this was what I had gone to the lake for, to get more tired than I have ever before, to push my limits and see what’s there. To check out what everyone who’s been there is talking about. You can’t take a photo of the pain cave and post it on your instagram. You’ve got to go there to experience it.

We passed the opening to the inlet where the truck was parked on our way to the southern island. I could’ve just swum into it and been in the truck in 20 minutes, but I chose to swim on, one stroke at a time. I spent all day trying to get to this point, I thought. Why miss out on it now?

Here I am, approaching the southern islandyou can just barely make it out in the left side of the photo, on the horizon.

As I sit in the truck after the swim, shivering and flipping through the photos Dan took (all photo credits to Dan btw), I am overwhelmed by conflicting emotions of being proud and being humbled. Proud because I showed up and was out there doing what I love. Humbled because I am not indestructible, I can’t just go forever. I’ve got limits. But I now know myself better than before. I know my weak areas better and where I need to focus my training. I now know first-hand the importance of pacing. And I also know I’ve got more in me and look forward to finding that at the next adventure.

Straits of Mackinac

“I could swim across that,” I said, as a tow-headed-blonde, ten year-old. My sisters, brother, parents and I were traveling over the Mackinac Bridge in our large, blue, Ford Club Wagon van. “No you can’t,” someone said. “It’s 4 miles long. You’d drown!”

I looked down at the choppy water out the window. It was blue with whitecaps and probably foreboding to most, but to a cocky, ten year-old who had just achieved her first “A” time, it seemed totally doable.

It turns out it is totally doable, and the number of people who’ve done it doubled Sunday, 8/11/19, when over 300 people completed the crossing as part of “The Mighty Mac” race event.

The Mackinac Bridge connects the lower peninsula of Michigan with the upper peninsula and the water flowing beneath it is known as “The Straights of Mackinac”.

As race organizer, Jim Dreyer pointed out at the safety meeting the night before, “there isn’t anyone who has driven over that bridge and hasn’t wondered what it’s like down there, and tomorrow you’re going to get to actually experience that”. I smiled as the memory of my ten year-old self sprung to mind. I’d always wanted to do this and now I was going to get to. This is what it’s all about, I told myself, having written my post on the “why issue” just a few days prior.

The Wetsuit

With that in mind, I set my alarm for 4:15 (1:15 am pacific) and stumbled sleepily out of the car at the ferry dock at 5 am. My dad stood patiently by, while I cursed and swore at my wetsuit as I tugged it on, inch by inch. As my main swimming focus lately has been acclimating to cold water, I don’t ordinarily use my wetsuit and have become unaccustomed to the arduous process of putting it on. However, wetsuits and tow-floats were required for this swim by the race organizers and I support their decision. Four hundred people were signed up for the swim and the water temperature varied considerably throughout the straits. The race organizer explained that the wetsuits were needed in case the wind, currents or weather suddenly turned bad, as is common for these waters. In that case, they would “extract” us all, one by one–a process that might mean we are in the water considerably longer than anticipated. With sudden weather changes, the water temperature could plummet from high 60s to mid-50s without much warning. I sweated as I yanked the wetsuit higher, over my hips. With the current water temperature around 68 F, I was mainly concerned about overheating while swimming and I found that, despite the wetsuit being sleeveless, I was quite warm during the swim.

The Ferry Ride

We all boarded the ferry with only what we would swim with–in my case: cap, goggles, phone in dry case and my small, orange tow-float. I brought the phone so my dad could see my progress and know what time he and my mom should head over to see me finish. I couldn’t figure out how to use racejoy so I just did “share my location” with him.

One of the things I enjoyed about this swim is that people could wear and bring whatever they wanted, provided they complied with the rules and wore a wetsuit and towed a float. Some folks opted for flippers and carried “feeds” (food and drink) in their tow-floats. Other people brought shoes or neoprene socks to walk over the rocks. This contributed to a relaxed, swim-your-own-swim type of atmosphere. The spirit of adventure was certainly with us.

I found the rocks at the start and finish to be unremarkable and did not regret leaving my footwear at home. However, I did achieve a small bruise or cut on my heel. I also did not regret waiting until the finish to eat and drink. I’m accustomed to swimming for a few hours without nutrition and did not notice any ill effects. It turned out to be a plus not to have the distraction of eating in the middle of the swim.

As people boarded the ferry, I saw a couple people I knew–Jay Zawacki, a teammate of mine growing up and Bruce Geffen, know to me as my sister’s middle school teacher, “Mr. Geffen”. I haven’t done much swimming in Michigan since I left in 1998, so it felt good to know a few people on the boat. I didn’t even know Mr. Geffen was a swimmer until another childhood teammate of mine, Anna Nathan, told me he was doing the race. It really is a small world out there and swimming connects us in such a cool way.

As the ferry pulled out of the harbor, the view of the bridge and sunrise from the ferry was something to behold. I milled around the lower cabin, taking as many photos as I could.

Another downside of wetsuits is that once they are on, there’s no peeing until you’re in the water. By the time we anchored on the south side of the straights, the urge was so strong I didn’t even have the mental capacity to be nervous about the swim. When it was time to jump from the ferry deck–about 6 feet, I didn’t even hesitate.

After taking a few minutes to relieve myself, I looked around. What a sight! The sunrise colors were still in the sky, the bridge loomed magnificently over us and swimmers with their colorful tow-floats were scattered all around the ferry. I’ve got the take a picture, I thought. I quickly deflated my buoy enough for me to remove my phone, still in its waterproof envelope. But I realized I had blocked the touch screen by putting a piece of paper with my name and emergency contact on it in the phone dry case. I couldn’t take a picture without opening the dry case and exposing the phone to possibly getting wet. I looked around as waves lapped around me. People were gradually making their way to the south shore, where they would exit the water, run over a timing mat that would register their timing chip and officially start swimming for the north shore. Since I hadn’t run over the timing mat yet, my official swim hadn’t started. And I really wanted a picture. Sighing, I opened the plastic zip envelope and fumbled around trying to move the paper away from the screen. I fumbled and fumbled, while my buoy filled with water and waves threatened to douse my unprotected phone. I clumsily realized I wasn’t going to be able to get the paper out of the way without losing everything to the bottom of the lake. I looked behind me at the shore. The event had already begun and racing swimmers were already passing me on my left on their way out into the channel. I decided I wouldn’t get my photo but was happy I figured this out before officially beginning the crossing. I managed to dump a lot of the water out of the buoy and swim back to shore. Once there, I deflated my buoy a second time, finally took a photo, dumped out more water and re-inflated, all the while watching swimmers start their crossing. So I worked hard for this photo taken at the start of the race.

You can see swimmers on the left, beginning their crossing and swimmers on the right, swimming from the anchored ferry to the south shore where the crossing began.

The Swim

Tired of fumbling with wetsuits and tow-floats, I happily ran over the timing mat and plunged into the water. It was a relief to finally get swimming and I was on my way with a happy spirit. There was only a slight chop at the beginning, winds coming from the southwest, giving me a nice tailwind despite the slight push off-course from the west-to-east wind. Before I knew it, I was approaching the first tall suspension tower–and tower over me it did. I breathed to the left as I watched the bridge, stretching out into the waters to the land beyond. Breathing to the right, I felt I was looking out over the ocean.

As the swim continued, the wind picked up and I remember it getting choppy. White caps appeared on the surface and the current began to tug me slightly eastward, toward a line of boats marking the east side of the area we were allowed to swim in. It was not hard to stay on course, as the bridge was ever-present and easy to sight off of. I focused on trying to maintain a consistent distance from it, although it is so big that I often felt I was closer than I actually was. I felt the wind-chop pushing me mostly forward, but tried to keep my body at an angle to it so that it would not push me eastward.

The bigger the chop got, the more I felt like I was in the ocean, just without the salty water. I remembered reading that the Great Lakes have whales and wondered what I’d do if I saw a whale. (I later learned that there are no whales in the Great Lakes. It’s a total farce!) in any case, it was amazing being in such big freshwater. The vastness was mind boggling and special. After initially passing some large pods of people, I was eventually mostly swimming alone. I liked the feel of that, occasionally flipping over to swim backstroke and take a “picture memory” of the bridge from the water. It was peaceful out there.

Another swimmer, Jacki Galko, took this photo from the water and gave me permission to share it here. Her original photo was a fantastic selfie, but this lightly edited version looks more like my picture-memory.

All-too-soon, I passed the second tower and watched the suspension cables descending toward the water as I swam along. I felt an odd sadness at the bridge part of the swim not being longer. I guess doing marathon swims have got me spoiled. As I neared the final piling, I realized I didn’t really know where to go. We had been swimming on the east side of the bridge and I was aware that we needed to cross under the bridge at some point to reach the finish line, just west of the bridge. I swam over to the piling and slapped it (just for fun). We had been encouraged to do this by the race director so I knew it was allowed. Just then, I noticed the flash of someone’s bright orange buoy north of me on the east side of the bridge. I guess we stay on this side. There must be an opening in the breakwall, further north, I thought. The water here was very shallow and, surprisingly, got significantly colder. I found it refreshing on my face, shoulders and arms, as I was quite warm in my sleeveless wetsuit. Swimming next to the breakwall made the wind almost non-existent. I found this part of the swim to drag a little–no exciting waves tossing me about, no huge bridge to look up at.

The Finish

I caught up to the guy I was following–thanks guy! I kept following him as he turned left to go under the causeway. There was a little opening that you could swim under. I did backstroke, the ceiling of the opening just high enough to where I didn’t hit my hands. I swam past Guy on my right. I believe the left side of the tunnel may have had an easier current as we were now swimming directly into the unbroken southwest wind on the west side of the causeway. I looked for the finish arch and could just barely see it. As I took a few strokes without sighting, the wind pushed me off course and in toward the beach. I had to navigate straight into the wind to get back away from the shore and swim for the arch, this time sighting more frequently. I exited the soundless water to the cheers of excited spectators, all clustered tightly together around the finishing mat. Friendly volunteers congratulated me and commented on the wind picking up. Someone handed me a finisher medal and another volunteer removed my timing chip. My mom tried to hand me a towel, but I was really warm and didn’t want it. A random person I didn’t know tried to start a conversation, asking me how the swim was. The whole thing was a lot of sudden stimulation and I suddenly felt confused and overwhelmed from the sensory overload. So I told my parents I was going to go on a walk. I walked out of the crowd a ways, then laid down on the grass, wetsuit and all, catching my breath and looking at the sky. I already missed being out in the water, with the wind blowing and the bridge towers standing tall above me. The whole thing just seemed to go by too fast.

I took a picture from this spot

The bridge seemed strangely far away. My phone beeped at me as messages started coming in from other family members, congratulating me in response to my parents’ message that I had finished.

I went back to the crowd and watched other people finish for a few hours with my parents. The water just continued to get choppier and more rough. I later learned that many swimmers had a hard time staying on course during the latter part of the swim and had to be pulled out by the safety boats. It occurred to me that by being a faster swimmer, I had had a much easier course than those who had to swim in the rougher water that had developed due to taking longer to complete the swim. It seems sort of unfair–the faster swimmers should have a harder course, but the water doesn’t care about fairness or how fast you are. “In some ways, these people just did something even more impressive,” my mom remarked as swimmers unsteadily exited the water with the help of volunteers. I whole-heartedly agreed with her. Some of these folks had swum over twice as long as I had! And in worse conditions!

Of course, my mom insisted on taking a picture of me with my finisher medal, and I’m glad she did because it is a pretty cool picture.

What Am I Training For?

I lift my eyes just above the water to look at what’s ahead. Mostly paddle-boarders and kayakers, an occasional inner-tube floater. I hold my arm in place for a second to glance down at my watch. I’ve been swimming this same 800 meter stretch of the Deschutes River for three hours already. Kristine will be here in an hour. I think to myself. I just need to make it alone until then, and then the last two hours I’ll have company at least. I pick up the pace a little, just so my teeth will stop chattering. The water is cold, 61 degrees. Cold–at least for me, when I’m trying to stay in for 6 hours. I’m trying to work hard so my heart rate can stay up, but it’s not easy. The river is moving so fast that I inch along upstream even at my increased pace. I’ve got all my favorite upbeat tunes playing on my internal “stereo”, blasting away, running through my mind. The only actual sound is the water sloshing past my ear plugs, but the view is nice. The river runs straight through Bend, Oregon, carving a canyon lined with dramatic cliffs in this part of town.

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Ever since SCAR, people have been asking me what I am training for. The question comes in different forms, “When’s your next race?” or “So, what’s next?” or “Do you have any more big swims coming up?”. They ask Dan, when he is paddling next to me, “Is she training for something?”. Kristine reported almost non-stop chatting with Bend locals beginning with the same question during the swim described above. She said that almost every paddler stopped to ask her and that people stopped on the river trail and stared from afar and from the bridges above. The questions are always oriented to the future and the unspoken question is, “Why? Why are you doing this?”. It happens so frequently that I have concluded there must be something kind of universal about the question–something almost everyone is curious about and wants to connect over.

I give different answers at different times, ranging from informative: “Catalina Channel is my next big swim”, to silly: “I’m pulling an inflatable kayak behind me to train for Mighty Mac, where tow floats are required”. On Monday, when I was swimming in the river, a paddle boarder wondered why I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit–was it too constrictive? “I’m just trying to get used to the cold water,” I explained. I find that I am often sidestepping the question when it comes from strangers, almost as if I am subconsciously and suspiciously wondering, why do you want to know? Will you understand me if I tell you? It never feels complete or right to say, “I’m training for Catalina” or “I’d like to do the English Channel one day and it’s cold”. That’s not really the reason I’m training. If it were, I’d find it heart-breakingly difficult to spend the hours I spend swimming for only one day of payoff.

One of the best answers I’ve given was in the middle of a swim in Elk Lake in 2017. A woman in a kayak asked me if I was training for something. “You must be a triathlete,” she said.

It was the summer I took off from any racing or any organized swimming. I had no goals. There were no upcoming triathlons or open water swim races. I hadn’t even discovered marathon swimming yet. But I had discovered I hated swim meets even more than when I was a kid: the focus on times, the over-attachment to outcome. The exact speed I happen to achieve that one day determining how I view the past however-many-months of training. That summer, I had “quit swimming” for a second time. It was the summer I started this blog and decided to just go lake bagging. The kayaker wanted to know if I had some sort of event coming up.  “No,” I replied. “I train so that I can do this–swim around in this lake”.

Here’s a picture from that day.

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Isn’t swimming here a good enough end unto itself?

I joke with my friends that I’m the laziest, hard-working person I know. And it’s true–I love to sit around and do nothing, read a book, listen to music, watch netflix, lie in my hammock, stare at the sky, float on a raft. Sometimes I like to sit and watch my thoughts go by without making any special effort to regulate them. I’m a great doer of nothing. And while I am doing nothing, I’m alive and appreciating life. But if I hammocked 24/7, I would start feeling depressed and listless, maybe ansy or restless. I’d be not living. I love to do nothing, but I also love intense sensory experiences. I get a lot out of looking around, seeing new things, seeing beautiful things in nature, feeling intense emotions, feeling intense physical sensations. I love to go do stuff.

Here is me doing some not-swimming stuff that I love.

On facebook, after I posted a picture of myself bagging a lake in the dead of winter, a friend asked why I was doing that. “Because what else was I going to do that day?” was my reply. I don’t have to have an extrinsic reason, but all these sensation seeking, sensory-rich experiences that I crave do add up to things. I swam through the winter because “what else was I going to do”, and it was intense and felt awesome, but as a result, I can now tolerate cold much better. In turn, having better cold tolerance opens up more doors for me for more intense swimming experiences. When I do those things, I am sure it will seem to me that I trained for them, and I did, but I also just followed my heart and what I was interested in doing in the moment.

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A cold, blustery swim on Big Lake last fall.

Sometimes if I focus too much on extrinsic goals, like future stuff or comparing myself to other people, I start to get pretty bummed out. I really enjoy having a goal to structure my swimming around, like a direction, but I don’t like getting overly attached to a certain definition of success. When I do that, I tend to feel bad, even if I “succeed”. I don’t really totally know why. I don’t seem to get much richness or meaning out of those situations, but all the swimming experiences I do along the way are deeply important to me.

Looking back at my experiences as a competitive swimmer, I am pretty proud of some of my accomplishments. I’m also pretty sad about the places I fell short of my goals. Still. But my very happiest memories are from the workouts we did as a team–the summer morning practices where the sun was friendly and bright. And of course, the night practices, when the glow of the pool lights would shine at the end of practice. We would all leave feeling completely spent, and fall asleep twitching from fatigue. Some days I’d ride my bike to practice (a few miles), workout for two hours (7-8km), go water skiing all day, then return for night practice (another 7-8kms). My mom would pick me and my bike up at 10pm, and I’d go home exhausted but tired, ready to sleep and do it again the next day. Did I have to do it? No– especially not the biking and water skiing. It was intense and rich though, and something that I look back on fondly. I wouldn’t trade those days on the lake or the time in the pool for anything. I hope I am making more of those types of memories now days– ones I can look back on when I am older with gratitude for the experiences.

In the river swim described above, I did make it the whole six hours, and I was so proud! It was fun having Kristine there with me and fun seeing the same stretch of the river change throughout the morning as the sun rose high into the sky and the water went from smooth and empty to speckled with floaters and paddlers. Having completed that swim, I feel so much more confident signing up for some long, cold type swims next summer. The swim was worth it in and of itself–a great experience, and it will just lead to more great experiences.

Now if you think you get what I’m saying and you are on board with this whole “bottom-up” approach to training, then I’m just about to completely contradict myself. Everything I just said is true, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I absolutely love creating training plans. Planning for a big swim and planning each training cycle leading up to it and each week within that training cycle is an engaging and enjoyable creative process for me. There aren’t too many things I enjoy thinking about more. I love to think, “what will prepare me best for this challenge”. I love reading what other people have done to prepare for similar challenges. I love talking with people about training theories, approaches to training and their own experiences training. It’s probably my overall interest in planning and my long love affair with structure that contributes to this interest. For me, it’s a very important and enjoyable part of the journey.

I’ve been accused in the past of being paradoxical and contradictory. On one hand, I agree with that characterization, but I think the theme here that’s works for me is a non-attachment to outcomes.

When I was about ten or eleven, my parents gifted me a book of inspiring quotations. I tore the following page out and kept it forever:

“It’s good to have an end to journey towards, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.”

The quote was not attributed to anyone, so I’m not sure of its origin, but it resonated with my young self and has continued to stick on my mind throughout the years and different pursuits I’ve taken on. I’m happiest when I’m living this way and that’s enough for me.

Mindfulness for Peak Performance

I eye the bucket of ice water nervously, the clear cubes of frozen water floating mercilessly near the surface. Feeling my fight or flight system come online, a grim thought arises, I know what this feels like. Yes, I do and it’s intense. I can feel my body preparing.

“You’re going to win this one,” the lady next to me says, encouragingly. “You do this all the time!”

I laugh nervously. I’ve already disclosed to the group that one reason I’ve come to mPEAK was to work on the mental aspect of cold water swim training. Here I am, about to do an exercise that’s just about as similar as you can get while still on dry land.

What is mPEAK?

mPEAK or “Mindfulness for Peak Performance” is a mindfulness training course geared toward folks who want to work toward peak performance in an area or several areas of their lives. The developers of the course have worked with Olympic athletes, therapists, corporate executives, first responders and others. Originally in an eight week format, the version I attended was a three day intensive class with six weeks of follow up sessions offered via teleconference. I decided to attend to improve my skills at the mental aspects of marathon swimming, and also to learn more tools to help athletes I work with as a Psychologist achieve their own peak performance.

The instructors were Pete Kirchmer And Corrie Falcon. Pete was interviewed on the outside online podcast (which you can listen to here). I listened to the interview and was so impressed with Pete’s presentation of such a complex topic that I decided to attend.

During the introductions, I was surprised and thrilled to learn that Corrie Falcon, the co-instructor, was a competitive swimmer the same time I was. She swam for University of Southern California and made the U.S. National Team, an accomplishment that is on par with becoming an Olympian. She coached the University of California San Diego swim team for a number of years and now works with UCSD athletes and coaches across all sports on the mental aspect of their performance. I can’t imagine a person better equipped to help me learn these skills as an athlete or supporter of other athletes.

It was in the competent hands of these instructors that I placed my willingness to keep an open mind and try some challenging things.

At Corrie’s prompt, I plunge my hand into the cold water bucket. A surprising moment of relief and pleasure at the cold arises, and then the familiar discomfort, pain, the urge to change my circumstance, to remove my hand or think about something else. I remember that this is an experiment. I’m supposed to actively distract myself from the hand in the water, to exert my mental energy avoiding the sensation, to try not feeling what I’m actually feeling. I start singing a song in my head. It’s one of the ones I like having in my head when I swim hard. I mouth the words into the air of the conference room. I look out the window, look at Corrie and Pete, at the floor, the door, the ceiling, the table behind me. As I do this, my mind is drawn back to the cold hand, now starting to go numb. I get an urge to do a dexterity test, to reassure myself nothing bad is happening. I’m supposed to distract myself, I remember, looking around the room again. Everyone looks calm, some participants are thoughtfully removing their hands from their buckets. Others sit stoically, or look around the room like me. I guess let’s see what happens, I remark to myself. I think about people I know who are not there, about my dog, my house, Dan, people I work with. Again and again my mind goes back to check in on my hand. Without intending to, I compassionately and grimly remind myself that all is well and that I can do this. Eventually, Corrie says to stop. I’m not even feeling like I have to remove my hand, but I do it anyway.

Then we do another round, with the other hand. This time, we are instructed to try the opposite, focusing instead on the sensations, observing them carefully and redirecting the mind back to the hand if it falls into distraction.

So again I plunge the other hand in and open my mind to how it quickly starts to hurt. What the f*ck is this sh*t?! I wonder, hopefully in my head and not aloud. I force myself to stare at my hand, to get absorbed into the pain, to not direct my attention away. All I want to do is take it out. It’s uncomfortable. Everything sucks. I say compassionate things to myself, this hurts, but you can do it. I start to wonder if this hand has more nerves in it. Frustration ensues. More swear words. The realization that this way is much, much harder comes up, then the disappointment that it didn’t work as I expected. The thought, “what is wrong with me?” plays over and over. All the while there is the pain, front and center in my mind, filling almost all my awareness, leaving no room for anything else aside from the negative thoughts and feelings squeezing themselves into every nook and cranny of available mental space.

After Corrie said to remove our hands from the buckets, we raised our hands to indicate which was easier, the second or first round. I was surprised and relieved to find that the vote was split about 50/50. Pete said that this split was actually pretty typical for the trainings he had led. Relief flooded me. I wasn’t the only one. My story that there was something wrong with me turned out to be false. It was my preconceived expectation that was incorrect or unrealistic. Pete went on to say that studies have found people report the exercise to be less painful and are able to persevere longer after having completed an eight week mindfulness course. After my experience, I can see why.

Trying Too Hard

While I was trying to be mindful on the second trial, I was overcome by negative feelings and stories about my perceived inadequacies. I was trying very hard to “be present” with my sensations and indeed, I became hyperabsorbed by the pain, so much so that I lost track of everything else that was happening in my experience and automatic thoughts were left free to run rampant and unchecked, quickly giving rise to negative core beliefs. I got totally wrapped up in my negative story and wasn’t really present after all. When I was trying to be distracted, I actually was more balanced. Despite my efforts not too, I checked in regularly with my painful sensations–yep, still there, yes still uncomfortable, that’s ok you can do it.

Pete introduced a metaphor of putting a handful of salt in a glass (which tastes terrible) versus putting the same sized handful of salt into a lake, (where the water still tastes fine). To make the pain less, we would have to “make a bigger lake”. I realized that I had accidentally done this on the first trial while attempting to distract myself. My awareness had become bigger. The pain was still there, but I had intentionally and compassionately filled my awareness with other things that I enjoy thinking of. My “lake” included my psych-up song, my friends, my current surroundings, the breath, my other hand and of course, the pain. I was still aware of the pain, and I allowed it to be there but there were so many other things there with it. In the second trial, the salt (or pain) filled the whole glass (my mind). I didn’t expand around it, I tightened down and made my mind smaller so I would think of nothing else. To make matters worse, the physical pain triggered an emotionally painful story, which became my sole focus.

One of my many takeaways from mPEAK is that if you try too hard to force helpful mind states like “flow”, being in the zone, or mindfulness, you might get something opposite. I think this is well illustrated to me in the experience with the ice bucket challenge.

The Cost of Distraction

During the discussion of the ice bucket challenge, the issue of the cost of distraction came up. When I shared my experience with the group, Pete skillfully pointed out that in fact, I wasn’t able to completely distract myself. I couldn’t really avoid my physical pain. So, first of all, it may not be possible or sustainable to rely on distraction as a method of coping. In the absence of skills like acknowledging and self-compassion, which I accidentally used, distraction would not have been sufficient. Eventually, I would’ve had to take my hand out if the water. If this were a race or channel crossing, I’d have to get out. Another issue that was raised was that tuning in to physical sensations provides important information. Pete gave examples of athletes who ignored or distracted from physical pain, only to find they had ignored an injury too long, resulting in further injury and much longer recovery than if they had tuned into the pain, listened to it and taken a break sooner.

As swimmers who constantly need to monitor our shoulders for signs of injury versus signs of the normal aching that comes with effective training, this example hits home.

I regrettably did not take a photo of the ice bucket challenge, but here is a picture of the cave I wisely avoided venturing to on my own for the first time. “People swim through it often, when conditions are right,” local open water leader, Dan Simonelli told me. But as a beginner to the area, swimming on my own, I decided to listen to my fear of being slammed into rocks by waves rather than distract from that particular fear in order to swim on toward the cliffs. The water looks calm here, but it wasn’t the day before.

Another application is for cold water training. For instance, my intuition during both ice bucket trials was to check my dexterity to make sure I could still move my fingers. I’ve practiced doing this a lot in my cold swims. Dexterity is one of the tests me and Dan do together when he kayaks along with me. He asks me to show him I can still touch my thumb to each finger. If I can’t, that isn’t a sign to panic, but it’s really important information that he and I will use to determine if it’s time to get out or not. If we both avoid thinking about how my body feels and is reacting to the cold, we won’t know when to get out. Hypothermia can be dangerous. It’s important to push yourself, but it’s important to know when to stop. In my blog post about beginners mind in cold water, I wrote about this need to tune in to the senses when training in the cold and I had that very much validated during mPEAK.

A Mindful Swim

That evening, I went for a solo swim at La Jolla Cove to test one further application: coping with fear. The sun was heading toward the horizon and the water was more clear than it had been on my previous two swims the days before. Bright-orange garibaldi fish swam lazily below me as I headed out into the water. I noticed I felt more edgy about the extremely low possibility of encounter with potentially dangerous (ahem) “wildlife”. Sunset, sunrise… these are feeding times for many animals, many types of, well wildlife, I thought nervously as I swam along, passing the last swim buoy and heading into the territory beyond the now familiar swim buoy course. I decided to try out what I had learned at mPEAK. I acknowledged the fear, but didn’t dwell on it. I generated some positive thoughts and stayed present with other aspects of the current experience–the sky above, the clouds around the sun, the gentle waves lifting me up and down, and the long stretch of my stroke in the water. I tried to stay present with the uncertainty and the fear sensations but also not become overwhelmed by them. What is actually happening right now?, I asked myself, many times. I am swimming. I can feel the water and see it’s color. I am breathing. I am pulling. I am gently kicking. There is a nervous energy in my body. I am having thoughts about danger. And you know what? The fear just came and went the whole time. I just observed it. It was not as noticeable as I swam back toward the buoys and past them toward shore, but stronger again as I headed away from shore on another loop around the buoys. When I started swimming the final stretch back to shore, it was from a place of self-compassion rather than panic or fear. I felt done practicing swimming and done practicing being present with difficult sensations. I was ready for dinner and the comfort of my warm bed.

Drafting with the Peloton: the Value of Group Mindfulness Practice

“I have a hard time with group meditation,” I told my Psychologist colleagues, before coming the mPEAK. Prior to this experience, I’ve always been overwhelmed by my perception of other’s expectations of me while meditating in group settings. I should be doing this posture or have a certain facial expression if I am serious about meditation. I should practice this many times a week for this many minutes. I should only think about the breath. Lying down is inferior to sitting in the classic meditation stance. These are the sort of thoughts I imagine my fellow meditators to have in other group settings I have tried. At mPEAK, the message was clear and very different, both from the leaders and from other participants. Pete stressed what he called, “radical self-care”, which included encouragement to lie down, stand up, take a bathroom break, drink water or anything else we truly felt we needed. He recommended we consider things before doing them, but then decide to do what we think would be best, while maintaining a sense of mindful awareness. The implication was that we are wise enough to truly consider what will be the best posture, action or inaction for our own paths. For me, this often meant taking a more casual-looking stance or facial expression than you might see in the movies. I doubt anyone noticed, but permission to do this, to not fit the preconceived notion made all the difference to me.

I found many similarities between my fellow participants and people I connected with at SCAR. Both groups of people struck me as kind, resilient, community-minded and tough as nails. As a group, we defined our values from the beginning. Many group members had values congruent with mine, including compassion, striving for non-judgement and holding things lightly. As I got to know my fellow group members, I found it easier and easier to just be myself. This group environment and support allowed me to discover things I didn’t know about myself and wouldn’t have figured out without their influence.

For instance, during a yoga practice, we were invited to adopt the expression of a warrior. I felt brief social pressure to arrange my facial features in a certain way, channeling what I imagined other people thought of as a warrior. I caught myself doing this and realized that this group really wasn’t like that and I truly was free to do my own thing. It prompted me to really think about it. Then I realized that for me, a warrior’s mindset is kind of matter-of-fact, stoic and includes a bit of dry humor–like Woodrow McCrae in Lonesome Dove. Well, my arms might fall off while I’m doing this yoga pose, but best thing to do is just sit here and see what transpires, I thought, channeling my favorite Larry McMurtry characters. This is the thought of an individual and maybe I could’ve had it alone. But! The experience of feeling supported in having an individual thought and behavior that differed slightly from the group, while still in a group is something I simply couldn’t get without the acceptance and openness that I sensed from this particular group.

Using the examples of cyclists riding in a big group (or “peloton”) to draft off one another and make for a swifter journey, Pete explained that he believes there is a draft for mindfulness as well. We are stronger together, actually. Despite my previous fear, I’d have to agree. I think we are stronger together, especially when people are willing to be themselves with courage, even when we have different ways of doing things. When we are doing the work together, we are a stronger force against the winds that attempt to push us backwards. I know I certainly wouldn’t have made the progress I did without the help of the group this weekend. During the mindful practices, I felt comforted, calmed and encouraged by the people around me. When others shared their stories, I learned so much, was inspired and felt connected in a way that gave me the courage to keep showing up fully. What implications could this have for helping athletes working together in teams? Are there ways that teammates and communities of athletes can support each other’s mental toughness development? Can we achieve more together than we could dream of as individuals? I absolutely think so.